Review of PLAYING NICE by Rebekah Crane (In This Together Media, January 2013)
"Martina 'Marty' Hart is really nice. At least, that's what people think.
It's Marty's junior year at Minster High. Minster's a small town where making great grades, smiling pretty, helping old people, running the new-student Welcoming Committee, and putting up decorations for all the dances--including the totally awful Hot Shot fall hunting celebration--gets you ... what? Marty's not sure. Instead of dreaming about a sororities-and-frats future at nearby University of Michigan, she's restless, searching for a way out of the box her controlling mother and best frenemy Sarah have locked her in. When Lil--don't call her Lily!--Hatfield transfers to Minster, Marty gets her chance. Lil's different. She smokes, wears black, listens to angry punk records, and lives in a weird trailer with her mother. Lil has secrets--secrets that make her a target for all the gossiping and online bullying Minster can muster. But so does Marty. And Marty sees something different in Lil. Something honest. Something real." (from RebekahCrane.com)
It's not the most unique concept - one part Jenny O'Connell's THE BOOK OF LUKE to three parts Kirsten Hubbard's LIKE MANDARIN - but the actual voice of Rebekah Crane's PLAYING NICE is so consistently unexpected that the book manages to feel fresh and new with every chapter. Marty is one of the more believable teen characters I've come across in a while: eager to please, silently resentful, and sexually curious. (Sound like anyone else you knew at sixteen, like maybe... yourself? No? Just me?) While plot twists and turns may not have thrown me, the characters and dialogue often did, providing a pleasantly surprising edge and even raunchiness where least expected.
What really sold me on PLAYING NICE, though, is that it's not just about Rebekah's decision to stop "playing nice," but rather about her realization that that's all everyone else in her small town is really doing. From her parents to her best friend to the guy who's got her heart and attention, everyone else in Minster's kindness is only skin deep, and nothing brings out the truth in both Marty and those around her like her new best friend, Lil. (Well, and Lil's mother, who's the actual center of all the controversy). It's interesting to see a character grow not only in terms of her own personal development but in the way she understands those around her - that friend who's not as supportive as she should be, the parents who actually don't know best, and the dream guy who may not be the ideal after all.
There is one by-all-accounts "nice" character, the too-perfect-to-be-true love interest #2 (no, don't worry, this isn't one of those irritating love triangles) who would probably continue to worship Marty even if she took a curling iron to his face. His slavish devotion to a girl who displays no interest is probably his only flaw, but he's a sweet finishing touch to an interesting and varied cast of characters I greatly enjoyed spending a couple of hours with. I highly recommend PLAYING NICE to anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction on the darker side of light and/or a strong focus on friendship over romance.
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